The Reef: A Passionate History
Author: Iain McCalman
The Great Barrier Reef, argues Iain McCalman, has been created by human minds as well as coral polyps, by imaginations as well as natural processes. In this landmark book he charts our shifting perceptions of it, from the terrifying labyrinth that almost sunk Cook's Endeavour to a fragile global treasure.
The Reef describes twelve key encounters between people, places, ideas and biosystems. In the nineteenth century the region was infamous for shipwrecks, and when Indigenous clans rescued survivors like Eliza Fraser, their actions were misrepresented in the popular press. Later, the whole world caught the fiery debate between Darwinists and creationists over the origins of this colossal structure. Artists and visionaries celebrated its beauty and fought its exploitation; marine scientists catalogued the threats to its existence.
The first social, cultural and environmental history of this World Heritage-listed site, The Reef is an effortlessly readable work by a born storyteller.
'An important and most timely book – a sparkling synthesis of science, history and politics.' Henry Reynolds
'Iain McCalman blends art and science brilliantly to show how coral lives and dies, and how over two centuries people perceived the most colourful thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, until coral health is now the very barometer of our future.' Bill Gammage
'Brilliant, beautiful, a hymn to the past, present and increasingly uncertain future of one of the world's greatest treasures. The Reef is necessary reading for anyone who cares about the future of the ocean.' James Bradley
'History doesn't get any more lively than this. A stylish, racing read, The Reef surprises with every turn of the page, investing one of the world's greatest natural structures with human drama. In almost cinematic episodes that veer from scientific epiphany to physical brutality, from the eighteenth century to our own conflicted age, McCalman introduces an amazing cast of characters. In the process – and it's a very entertaining one – he creates an entirely new account of a natural marvel, couched in gripping historical narrative, both witty and rigorously scholarly, sweepingly grand and vividly detailed.' Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize
'McCalman's book reminds us that the Great Barrier Reef, a treasure that covers 348,000 square kilometres and includes about 1000 islands and cays and 3500 individual stretches of reef, is in our care, and that we might not be doing a very good job.' Saturday Age
'McCalman's tone shifts from the boy's own adventure, scientific excitement and scamming of early encounters, to dizzying disaster-epic suspense. But never for a moment does his literary skill falter. His detailed explanation of marine science is a model of translation for the layman. And his respect for Indigenous people is a model of intercultural translation . . . He describes the Indigenous view of events without exoticising the individuals he talks to. Nostalgia permeates the book, for ancestral lands lost and for what we all might be losing now.' The Guardian
'The Great Wall of China is dwarfed to nothingness, along with everything else proud humans have built, by the minuscule polyps that fashioned the Great Barrier Reef. That living reef, the world's largest, is in desperate trouble, the victim of climate change and a melancholy legacy of carelessness, indifference, and greed. The Reef is more than a lament. It is a brilliant history of our long interaction with this precious feature of our world, weaving together coexistence, terror, exploration, exploitation, scientific curiosity, and love. McCalman has a rare gift for conjuring up both famous and forgotten lives and for awakening our wonder.' Stephen Greenblatt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
'Iain McCalman's captivating account of the Great Barrier Reef weaves a brilliant tapestry of conflicting and diverse pasts—of indigenous peoples, Western explorers, castaways, scientists, investors, and politicians. Usually a subject of natural history, the Reef finally finds a place in a contradiction fundamental to the history of modernity: the desire to preserve nature while exploiting it for profit. With this book, McCalman cements his reputation as one of the finest historians of our times.' Dipesh Chakrabarty, Professor of History, University of Chicago, and author of Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies.
'Iain McCalman's wonderful The Reef: A Passionate History, like its subject, builds slowly into beauty, offering an account of the Great Barrier Reef as it exists in culture, language and dream, as well as in marine biology.' Robert Macfarlane, award-winning author of Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways; Chair of the 2013 Man Booker Prize
'The magnitude of the awesome Great Barrier Reef is matched here by Iain McCalman's deep exploration of its compelling history and colorful ecology. An important biography of a fragile place.' Katherine Harmon Courage, author of Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
'No other historian I know brings exploration, science, the environment and strange experience together with the erudition or the eloquence of Iain McCalman. The Reef is utterly absorbing, as well as richly informative.' Nicholas Thomas, University of Cambridge
'A landmark achievement.' Poul Holm, Professor of Humanities, Trinity College Dublin
'Iain McCalman takes us to one of the most scientifically rich and naturally beautiful environments on the planet, artfully weaving scientific inquiry and historical rigor into the life stories of twenty individuals. As we experience this extraordinary place through their eyes, we come away informed and inspired.' Jim Toomey, creator of 'Sherman's Lagoon' and executive director of Mission Blue